Bangkok

So I landed in the “land of smiles” less than a week ago and while I’ve been trying to take it fairly easy, which has been helped a lot by jetlag which left me unsure as to when sleep was a good idea. With a few rather restless nights, I’ve still managed to do a lot of what I wanted to in the first few days of my trip.

Why have I come away again so soon you may ask, and it’s a reasonable question. I never really felt like I had finished my last trip, the end was unsatisfactory and although I did enjoy going home and seeing friends and family I never really planned to stay for long so when my bank balance suggested I could travel again I leapt at the opportunity. Thailand is a stepping stone but it’s been fascinating in the last week and I feel like I’ve got closer to the heart of the country already than I did last time I was here.

I decided to try and get more from Couchsurfing on this trip and it has been fantastic although I haven’t stayed with anyone I met several people through Bangkok groups that I joined and they have been extremely enjoyable and rewarding meetings.

I decided to stay away from the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Road this time since I thought I was going to have a funny turn in my cell the last time I was there, and went for one of the highly recommended places in the buzzy Silom district, HQ Hostel. The place was kinda nice, in a Crystal Maze Industrial Zone sorta way and I can’t complain about the beds which were very comfortable or the fact that my four bed dorm was empty for all but the first night I was there (when two guys came in at 3AM but then left by the time I got back after going out earlier in the morning). It wasn’t the busiest place then but that did allow me to make full use of the free wi-fi , the only gripe I would have is that after 4 nights for the price of 3 booked online at a discount when I tried to extend one extra night they were insistent they could do nothing about the price (which was nearly double what I’d been paying.) I said thank you and goodbye and walked across the road to the equally good, if not better Smile Society which was actually cheaper and had free breakfast (although I had to share the dorm with some dick who getting up at 5AM decided to re-pack his bag and then managed to drop coins all over the floor… so yeah, compassion but come on dude a bit of forward planning and consideration…)

Anyway, enough about my accommodation, and more about the area… Silom is a big road which leads to Lumpini Park at one end where I spent a couple of hours on two days, chilling by the lake, attempting to meditate, getting bitten by ants and being bemused by joggers (in this heat!?)

It is also home to the notorious Patpong night market, an area which sells tourist tat and is flanked on either side by go-go bars, ping pong shows, massage parlours like “99 Climax Massage” and guys trying to drag you off to their club where they have the “best girls.” It’s not really as seedy as it sounds, with most of the potential customers being faintly amused or frightened tourists. I saw a ping pong show last time I was here though, and I really don’t need to see one again so it didn’t hold that much interest for me, although I did get a banana pancake just down the road.

Also in this area is Soi Convent which has loads of great street food stalls and the Irish pub Molly Malones which I arranged to meet a couple of CouchSurfers in the second night I was there.

After buying a Guiness that was more expensive than in London I wasn’t terribly impressed but then I met Oh and Adeline, from Bangkok and Malaysia respectively and it was nice to meet some people who worked in the area.  We went for street food and ended up eating some sort of pig stomach soup. Despite my reservations, which I think Oh misunderstood, it was actually really nice with the gloopy gravy much better than it sounds…!

After that we hopped on the BTS (skytrain) and went to the Saxaphone pub where a Thai band was belting out live jazz and the singer did a very passable Sinatra impression. I ordered a dark Paulaner beer and felt like I’d never left London (not that I go to classy places like that in London…)

The next day my intentions were bold but not carried out due to being exhausted so I didn’t really do much apart from eat street food until I met Adeline in the afternoon to go and visit some temples for the Buddhist holiday that had left Bangkok something of a ghost town. We didn’t know exactly what the holiday was about, and neither did anyone we had spoken to but as she is also a Buddhist we thought it was a good excuse to do some sightseeing. We jumped on the Chao Phraya river boat to take us down to Wat Arun which is on the other side of the river to most of town and which rises high up like an old Khmer temple, very similar in style to Angkor Wat.

It was busy there with many people circumnambulating with incense, candles and Lotus flowers and monks talking over the PA system incessantly but cheerfully about who knows what. We watched a monk give a blessing and then decided to climb the steep steps which led to the top. It was quite a climb but the views over the river back to the Grand Palace and Wat Pho made it worthwhile, and there was a breeze up there as well!

 

Back across the other side of the river we bought some purple Dragon Fruit juice from a poetic juice maker and then wandered to Wat Mahathat which is very much a working temple and also an International School for Vipassanna meditiation. Unfortunately we arrived too late for the meditation class but a monk gave us some information and sent us to where many people were beginning to set up for what looked like an allnighter in the main temple hall. We got some incense and so on and did a couple of circumnambulations ourselves before moving on.

It was only on leaving the temple that we were able to discover what the festival was about because they had a display exhibition set up which was very good with figures of the Buddha and the story which were very well explained by one of the helpers there who told us that they were celebrating the Buddha’s first teachings at the Deer Park in Sarnath, India.

The next stop was a busy street food stall where we ordered Tom Yam Goong, Drunken Noodles and a pork steak (of all things). All were great and I think we found a really good place, it was packed which is always a good sign but all three dishes were excellent. The Drunken Noodles were spicy, with a real after kick but the Tom Yam was a perfect balance of sour and spicy because often I can find this dish a bit too much and they were extremely generous with the shrimp. The pork was in a rather nice peppery sauce and came as a good counter point to the other two.

At this point I’ll say that I’ve not lived up to any aim to be more vegetarian on this trip, it really seems hard to do here with pork especially prevalent and street food being rather meat heavy.

I’d arranged to meet another couple of interesting sounding Couch Surfers who were going to a free European Union film festival at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre near Siam Square. I was thrilled when I got there because the place was like nothing else I’ve seen in Asia, a real cool spot similar to the South Bank Centre or the Barbican or something like that with lots of art displays, trendy tea shops and the like in a circular building where the middle-class arty types hang out.  Not sure Thailand has an equivalent to the Guardian but this is where the people who would read it can be found rather than the large shopping malls that surround it, so I fit right in.

We were going to see a German film called Run if You Can which was a comedy about a love triangle involving a nervous cellist and a paraplegic which was rather fun and suggested that the German sense of humour is actually quite good, but then I knew that already..

I had contacted Natt and Pap because of their profiles which made them look interesting and I wasn’t wrong. Both had an interest in Buddhism and Pap is a documentary film maker who has been working on a series about festivals around the world among other things. After the film we went to get some dinner and despite the Buddhist festival managed to get some beer as well which helped us immensely to set the world to rights!  I learnt a lot about the political situation which has obviously been turbulent to say the least in the last couple of years in Thailand and we discussed religion philosophy and the difference between East and West.  Not least came the question, why is the East considered the East and the West the West when the Earth is a sphere. I guess the original cartogrophers coming from Europe naturally placed us in the middle but it certainly gets you thinking about the constructs that we live in every day.  We covered Paganism and Animism as well, with Thailand being a Buddhist country but with most houses also containing a shrine to the earth and spirits due to the strong animistic tradition which seems to have strong links with paganism… interesting.

The next day I arranged to meet Adeline again with the plan to go and get a Traditional Thai massage at a place she had been recommended called Health Land. First I met her at a mall where we had a Bubble Tea, or Pearl Milk Tea, something which has become one of those trendy things in London recently but nowhere near as much as it is over here. There were five stalls within 100m of each other all selling the same thing and apparently it is a craze that all the kids are getting into. Not wanting to miss out on this I had to give it a try. It is basically iced tea but with jelly balls of chewy tapioca starch in the bottom. Highly unusual and probably ridiculously unhealthy but still quite a novelty!

Anyway, after this little treat we went and found the massage place which was in a large impressive building that looked like a hotel from the lobby and from the corridors. It was extremely professional apart from the masseuses who seemed to find both of us hilarious, probably because we couldn’t do up our massage pyjamas properly. After two hours of getting pummelled and sat on I could feel every muscle in my body but in a numb good kind of way..!

We wandered around in a bit of a daze for a while after the massage which suggests it was pretty good until deciding to head to an area called Thong Lo which is known for its ex-pat community and food options. Wandering again we found one place that was phenomenal. Housing  Thai, Japanese and Indian restaurants in a wooden structure with pools and water features and a spa in the middle we were shown around by the delightful girl at the front desk who insisted on telling and showing us everything although after looking at the menu we already knew it was way out of our budget. She was great though and waited until we were leaving to make the point that actually if we came back shorts and flip flops were really not acceptable anyway!

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